In 1964 Avis Rent-A-Car ran an advertisement inviting customers to call the president, Bob Townsend, on his direct line if they had any complaints. “He answers the phone himself. He’s a nut about staying in touch.”

Breakthrough ad campaigns usually have a lot of “me-too” followers but there weren’t many CEOs following Bob Townsend’s lead in making themselves available to their customers. Even today you don’t see many top executives making the effort to “reach across the aisle” to their customers – with the possible exception of Steve Jobs in recent weeks.

Imagine what it would feel like if you signed up for a new account at a bank and you got home you found a personal email from the president inviting you to post a comment on the corporate blog about your first experience dealing with the bank?

Certainly top executives can’t correspond personally with every new customer, but every now and then they could reach out to connect with some customers.

Social Software makes it possible to take part in the larger conversation, makes it easy to say “You bought our product? Thank you very much. Let me know if we are earning your business every day.”

It doesn’t have to stop there. Every customer that has access to Facebook or Twitter has the potential to become an evangelist. The corporate web site becomes a place to build community.

To engage with customers around the things that are important to them – like their everyday service experiences.

Take Royal Bank of Canada for example, they have transformed their online banking page from a straight-up collateral message to a conversation with customers about their experiences – all experiences; the things that make them smile and the things that make them steam.

Sure, sometimes you’ll get an earful from a customer. More often, if you reach out to them, they’ll extend a hand back. Engagement, after all, starts with a human touch.